Boulton, Lindbeck and Rorty: Imagining a Quakerism without Metaphysics (Part 2.)

The Fruits of Our Narrative

All this sounds awfully freeing doesn’t it? Once we’ve put metaphysical questions about ‘reality’ to bed, we can surely get on with being Quaker? Yes, but at the same time such an approach is demanding. It necessitates that we know our story inside out, that we can read it well, and trace its implications with confidence. We need to able to say how the story should run and what it’s language generates An excellent summary of this kind of religious literacy is provided by the Lutheran theologian George Lindbeck. Instead of seeing religion as a set of abstract beliefs (about ‘nature’ or ‘super-nature’) Lindbeck suggests that religions should be understood as ‘cultural-linguistic’ systems. Religions are like complex languages which are only fully comprehensible to native speakers. Participants in the story know what to do, not because of ‘ultimate foundations’, because they have learnt what constitutes a convincing and coherent reading. As Lindbeck puts it:

A comprehensive scheme or story used to structure all dimensions of existence is not primarily a set of propositions to be believed, but it is rather the medium in which one moves, a set of skills one employs in living one’s life. Its vocabulary and its syntax may be used for many purposes, only one of which is the formulation of statements about reality. Thus while a religion’s truth claims are often of the utmost importance to it (as in the case of Christianity), it is, nevertheless, the conceptual vocabulary and the syntax or inner logic which determine the kinds of truth claims the religion can make. The cognitive aspect, while often important, is not primary. (Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine, 35)

According to this account, how do we know when we are speaking and acting coherently as Quakers? We know because our speech and consequent action are consistent with our story of ‘peace’, ‘truth’ and ‘love’.  We discern the right way forward, not because we have hampered out some account of God’s existence (or non-existence) but because are able to make the link between our stories, our words and our concrete practice. For the provisional ‘realist’ like me these marks of coherent practice are ‘the fruits of the Holy Spirit’. For a nonrealist like David, these are the marks of a community attentively gathered, held together by (nothing more and nothing less) than the community’s narrative consistency. I  might quibble about the full meaning of such consistency, but at the level of practice, is there really a substantial difference? And it is here we return to Rorty. If accounts of ultimate truth become bogus, says Rorty, then we need to find a better way of thinking. Rorty calls this perspective an ‘ironic’ or ‘pragmatic’ approach to matters of truth. As he expresses this alternative way of seeing:

[To] say that a belief is, as far as we know, true, is to say that no alternative belief is, as far as we know, a better habit of acting. When we say that our ancestors believed, falsely, that the sun went around the earth, and that we believe, truly, that the earth goes round the sun, we are saying that we have a better tool than our ancestors did. Our ancestors might rejoin that their tool enabled them to believe in the literal truth of the Christian Scriptures, whereas ours does not. Our reply has to be, I think, that the benefits of modern astronomy and of space travel outweigh the advantages of Christian fundamentalism. The argument between us and our medieval ancestors should not be about which of us has got the universe right. It should be about the point of holding views about the motion of heavenly bodies, the ends to be achieved by the use of certain tools. Confirming the truth of Scripture is one such aim, space travel another (Rorty, Philosophy of Social Hope, p. xxv).

Truth understood as Loving Practice

What Rorty is telling us is something both profound and deeply uncomfortable. He is suggesting that we should think of truth not as some weird ethereal quality, but the word we use when an idea, object or concept, produces some ‘useful result. In Christian terms we might turn to Jesus’ aphorism: “By their fruit you will know them’ (Matt. 7:16). In this mode, philosophizing or theologising, is not about getting to some ‘truth’ out there. It is about developing a way of speaking and acting which produces the results we think are consistent with our speech.  While I always hesitate to fully go along with Rorty’s radical project, I think he touches on a deep, dare I say ‘truth’ which is at the bedrock of Christian theology.

As Christians we are taught that ‘No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father (John 6:46). So do we know God? At most we know God through ‘the results’ of our language about God. Jesus was recognized as ‘the Son’ because his acts of healing and gift-giving converged with his words. The internal coherence between his Kingdom-talk and practice, was the prime mark of his truthfulness and revelatory power.  For those who came after Jesus, this link between claim and practice was at the heart of Christian conceptions of living and knowing. As the Letter of James beautifully puts it: ‘Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world’ (James 1:27).  What are the implications of this view of God? The philosopher Santiago Zabala suggests that such a vision of deity involves a dissolution of metaphysics and an embrace of moral practice:

The truth that shall make us free (John 8: 32) is not the objective truth of theology and the natural sciences: the scriptural revelation contains no explanation of how God is made or how to save ourselves through knowledge of the truth. The only truth that the Bible reveals to us is the practical appeal to love, to charity. The truth of Christianity is the dissolution of the metaphysical concept of truth itself. (Santiago Zabala, After Religion,  p. 14)

The only way we can come close to what saints and sages call ‘God’ is to practice loving-kindness. This is why Jesus remained silent after Pilate’s question. Truth was not ‘out there’ for Pilate to find, but was standing before him in the eyes of a Jewish prisoner.  Truth is not about speculation but about life. But this isn’t just fancy postmodernism, its Quakerism. Such a conjunction between God, love and action is the logical out working of our Quaker God-language. When Advices and Queries exhorts us to [take heed]… to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts’ and to ‘trust them as the leadings of God’ we are offered our own version of Zabala’s insight. Practice not theory is the mark of a life imbued with the Quaker story. I might call this a Christ-shaped ethic, David might prefer the language of religious humanism. Whichever language we choose, I think our terms exist within the same Quaker life. We are divided philosophically for sure, but should this dispute of the seminar room impinge on our unity at the level of Worship? Evidently a simple Quaker orthopraxy is not enough. We need a narrative as well as a practice to keep our communities going.

Do We Dare to Share? 

While this cultural-linguistic approach to present tensions among Quakers is far from perfect, it has the potential to build bridges between different kinds of Friends. By turning away from problems of ‘essence’ and metaphysical foundations, Friends might be encouraged to dig down into our native Quaker tongue and find renewed riches in our shared particularities. Once unshackled from barren discussions of theism or non-theism, we can again unite under the canopy of shared Quaker speech and practice. But when all is said and done, is this realistic? In his 2011 Gorman Lecture, Simon Best puts the problem like this:

There is an argument that Quaker theology, with its emphasis on continuing  revelation and change, is inherently radical. However I suggest that rather than being radical, having a theology so open that people can believe anything and still join shows that we are scared of having a tradition, and of being faith-based and spiritually grounded. By being totally open, by accepting all theologies, and even those with no theology but a philosophy, we may include people but we also exclude others. British Quakerism has become an orthopraxy rather than an orthodoxy….In religious groups a strong surface culture can disguise an absence of deep faith. (Best, The Religious Society of Friends, in Britain: Simple, Contemporary, Radical?, p. 53).

I hear Simon’s concern, but I’d extend and thicken the above verdict a little. The biggest obstacle in the quest for some kind of shared Quaker identity is not so much about belief (God versus no-God). The disunity runs at a much deeper level. It is about the stories we tell to each other about ourselves. We are losing a shared sense of how our narrative relates to our practice and vice versa. We are becoming increasingly hardened to the contours of our own Quaker speech.

The Challenge

It is only our words which bind us together and make us human (Montaigne)

Among some so-called ‘theistic Friends’ such hardness is expressed in an overinvestment in ‘transcendence’ and ‘supernaturalism’ at the expense of our richer native Quaker speech, including our traditional Christology. Instead of looking for the God recorded in our Book of Discipline, such Friends run hither and wither after another God, the deity of contemporary polemic. On the flip side, there are some ‘non-theist’ Friends who refuse to engage with traditional Quaker language about God because of what they think it commits them to.  We have all heard the same remarks in our Meetings, ‘I translate God to ‘good’, ‘I can’t believe in an old man in the sky’, ‘I just can’t accept anything supernatural’. But I wonder whether such God-language commits Friends in the way they think. Does adoption of a shared language mean we lose our own voice and critical capacity? Does it mean Friends have to become supernaturalists (whatever that means)? Of course not. As Lindbeck puts the matter:

Just as grammar by itself affirms nothing either true or false regarding the world in which language is used, but only about language, so theology and doctrine… assert nothing either true or false about God and his relation to creatures, but only speak about such assertions. These assertions, in turn, cannot be made except when speaking religiously, i.e., when seeking to align oneself and others performatively with what one takes to be most important in the universe by worshipping, promising, obeying, exhorting, preaching (The Nature of Doctrine, 69)

What does Lindbeck mean here? He means that adopting a religious language does not mean that everything said in the language has to correspond to reality in the immediate everyday sense. When we make assertions in religious language (like ‘God is love’), they don’t operate as ‘normal facts’ but they do have a function. We do not have to establish some empirical account of the Holy Spirit in order to be carried along by the language of divine presence.  In Meeting for Worship, we know what such language does. It energizes us, gathers us, provokes us and propels us. Nor do we need to possess a philosophical account of prayer for prayer-language to ‘work’. We know what prayer involves, we know what it means ‘to be prayerful’. This kind of ‘work’ is all we can convincingly say about our Quaker language this side of the eschaton. If we try to go beyond our own story to some transcendent essence (an impossible feat) we will tire ourselves out in a pretty pointless task. We would do better if we directed our attention to the practical business of being and acting Quaker. This means digging down into the words and images that continue to draw us together.  Doubtless there will still be some Friends who feel hemmed in by the very idea of some kind of a shared story and language.  For such Friends I can only respond by saying that Quakerism has no future without a shared story. Without a narrative that helps us articulate why we serve and worship together, Quakerism cannot be meaningfully sustained as a Way of transformation. Doubtless the structures of Quakerism can survive well after the religious experiment itself has died (as personal spirituality’ seminars). Such communities (where we all come together to be different) might actually prosper for a time, but I don’t think they will possess the animus and depth of Quaker spirituality and discipline. The only alternative to this paper-thin future is to dig down into a Quakerism with roots but without foundations.Such a faith is in one sense deeply traditional, but it is also deeply postmodern. In such an imagined future ‘isms’ of various kinds might lose their force, as we are refreshed by the stories we love.


7 thoughts on “Boulton, Lindbeck and Rorty: Imagining a Quakerism without Metaphysics (Part 2.)

    1. Thank you, Rhiannon, for writing “Teaching Religion as a Language” and “Understanding Quaker Religious Language in its Community Context”. I enjoyed reading them; they are well-constructed, thoughtful pieces. The content of the former bears an uncanny resemblance to Ben’s reasoning in this blog entry. Perhaps it was a coincidence.

      1. Gerald, I have known Rhiannon for a long time, so it is not that surprising to me that some of our ideas are converging in this way. In my defense, I’ve only read a chapter or two of your thesis Rhiannon!

  1. I like Part 2 better. I also like what Craig Barnett has to say in his blog (mentioned above), but particularly his last two paragraphs. I have a lot of sympathy with Simon Best’s position, too.

    I guess my own position is that the Kingdom of God, the Way, is the key to our Quaker future, that it provides us with the shared language we all want, a language that is obviously interpretive but which also provides the basis of an orthopraxy of Love–the ‘fruits’ as you cite from Mt. 7: 16. Your citation, of course, is from the Sermon of the Mount which, along with Lk. 6: 17-39, is the quintessential discourse of the Kingdom-Way. The early Friends were all too aware of this (see my previous post for Part 1).

    So, I think that here we do in fact have the basic narrative you talk about. It is a narrative that brings us along the Way of wholeness and unity in the Christ-Light, a wholeness and unity which, inherently salvific, allows us as co-workers with God to further our individual and collective liberation, inner and outer. The Way, then, is a shared language of healing and reconciliation, a celebration of the God who is immanent-transcendent.

    I explore much of this in my latest book, “What Love Can Do”: . Another work I’ve been associated with is Dudiak, J. (ed.), “Befriending Truth: Quaker Perspectives” (Longmeadow, MA.: Friends Association for Higher Education, 2015).

    I enjoy your blog, Ben,


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